With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy besieging the academy this year for the second year in a row, they couldn’t have asked for a better host than Chris Rock – or a worse host, depending on what he would say. Would he perfectly address the controversy? Would he make the academy look bad? Or would he be diplomatic?
Well, Rock did make the academy look a little bad, but letting him do it on a national stage also made them look good, which is slightly worrisome: a tongue-lashing from Rock is not the same as making meaningful institutional changes (in the academy and the industry at large), so let’s hope the work of improving representation doesn’t end here.
Rock mostly avoided press in the run-up to the Oscars, saving his commentary for the telecast, when it would really count, and he did it admirably. I was concerned at the start of his monologue, when he made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith and others protesting the event; I wondered, is he letting Hollywood off the hook? Is he simply dismissing the controversy?
But then he brought it around to a nuanced, biting and very funny observation about the limited opportunities for minorities and the way they’re treated by the industry: Hollywood is “sorority racist,” he said in his very best line of the night, pointing out that the industry isn’t a lynch mob but an elite social club that just doesn’t allow in … certain people.
Rock continued to address race throughout the night, but with positivity and good humor. He inserted black actors into some of this year’s Oscar-nominated films – the funniest being Leslie Jones mauling Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant.” And then he visited a movie theater in Compton to interview black moviegoers about this year’s nominated films, which they’d never heard of. That segment wasn’t just for laughs; a couple of the moviegoers made heartfelt appeals to the academy to recognize people of color who work just as hard as their white counterparts.
But not all of Rock’s bits landed. At one point he brought actress Stacey Dash onto the stage. Dash received backlash a few weeks ago when she claimed that Black History Month and the BET network were segregationist. It might have been a great, subversive moment, but there was no payoff or punch line beyond Dash taking the stage and then abruptly leaving. The main reason the joke fell flat, though, was that no one in the audience seemed to even understand the context of the joke to begin with.
Rock also brought out a troop of Girl Scouts to sell cookies to the audience, which felt too much like an attempt to recreate Ellen DeGeneres‘s memorable audience interactions, like when she took a widely shared Oscar selfie or when she ordered pizza for the audience. That moment also fell somewhat flat.
Unsuccessful and unnecessary bits like that stood out to me even more than usual because the Oscars got off on the wrong foot before the ceremony even began, by snubbing two of the Best Song nominees from performing during the telecast. Korean soprano Sumi Jo was not invited to perform “Simple Song 3” from “Youth,” and transgender artist Anohni wasn’t invited to sing “Manta Ray” from “Racing Extinction.” Anohni was so angry and humiliated – and rightly so – that she decided not to attend the event at all.
Instead, the academy only included performances of three of the Best Song nominees, but only the ones performed by famous pop stars who could boost the telecast’s ratings demographic: Sam Smith, The Weeknd and Lady Gaga. I find that insulting to both the snubbed performers and the viewing audience. I’m an 18-35-year-old, Oscar producers, and I thought your decision was not appealing, but rather cynical and crass.
Of those three live performances, the only one really worth discussing was Lady Gaga’s. She has performed “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary “The Hunting Ground” many times, campaigning with fervor and discussing her own personal experience with sexual assault. But there was a newfound anger and heartbreak in this rendition. She didn’t seem to be singing the song so much as she was possessed by it. And she was vocally flawless, even during the emotional crescendo when she brought out dozens of rape survivors to join her on stage. I suspect Gaga was fueled by extra indignation as the result of fellow singer Kesha‘s continued legal struggle to escape a recording contract with the man she alleged raped her. It was, without question, the moment of the night.
And then Sam Smith won the Oscar – go figure.
The rest of the telecast moved smoothly along. Winners had thank-yous scrolled on the bottom of the screen like a news ticker, but it didn’t really seem to change the content of their speeches much, and the academy played off the winners using “Flight of the Valkyries,” which seemed especially galling, especially when they used it on Best Director champ Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“The Revenant”) discussing diversity and Best Documentary Short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness“) discussing honor killing laws in Pakistan.
Sorry, Sharmeen. Honor killings are terrible and all, but we need to save time for the “Star Wars” robots and the Minions from “Despicable Me.”
Also problematic was the presentation of clips from the Best Picture nominees. They were introduced two at a time by presenters who had nothing to do with each other and nothing to do with the films: Sacha Baron Cohen, as his character Ali G, introduced a clip from “Room” – and writing that sentence was like filling out random Oscar Mad Libs.
Not many of the other presenters were memorable, though a few stand out. Tina Fey (playing drunk) and Steve Carell (playing it straight) were the best, handing out Best Production Design after their banter. But most surprising were Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling; in this case, Gosling played dumb and Crowe was the straight man, and though being charming is like rolling out of bed for Gosling, it was an unusually charismatic comic moment for the typically gruff Crowe. And Louis C.K., given the potentially thankless task of presenting Best Documentary Short, used it as a hilarious moment to point out the commitment of the unsung filmmakers who certainly aren’t doing it for the money.
Overall, it was an imperfect night, with high highs (Rock, Gaga) and a few low lows (snubbing Sumi Jo and Anohni). But if nothing else, the telecast as a whole was a marked improvement over last year, when the usually reliable Neil Patrick Harris fumbled.
What matters now, though, is to continue holding Hollywood’s feet to the fire. These Oscars had a black host, and a number of minority presenters – as well as women, who are also woefully underrepresented in the industry. How about casting them in more movies and hiring them as filmmakers and executives as often as they were brought on stage to superficially ease the academy’s conscience?